Managing the Monsters

Jeff White is an award-winning visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), whose two decades of film credits include four Transformers movies, The Avengers, Aquaman, and Kong.

Managing the Monsters

Jeff White is an award-winning visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), whose two decades of film credits include four Transformers movies, The Avengers, Aquaman, and Kong.

For the recent film Terminator: Dark Fate, White oversaw more than 200 ILM artists who worked together for more than a year to produce 688 of the film’s 2,600-odd visual effects shots—a massive task that included much of the difficult and iconic creatures effects work.

We wanted to know what it’s like, as a digital artist, to manage an effects-heavy feature like Terminator, month after month. What keeps him going, what challenges him creatively? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the collaboration and workflow between teams of talented artists, working in their area of expertise and handing off to each other to create the amazing effects that suspend our disbelief and bend time, space, and reality.

Create: A lot of movie-goers are mystified by visual effects. They see that that huge title crawl of hundreds of names at the end of a movie, and they wonder what that army of people could possibly do.  Could you summarize the process for us? Let’s start with pre-production.

White: The fun and interesting part of this job is that the typical day changes throughout the film.

Visual effects these days is a big part of pre-production, the pre-planning of the film. Our process really starts on set, being there with the director and the entire crew, before shooting starts. Everything is a trade-off, so the more set you can build, the fewer visual effects shots you’ll need. But there comes a point where you’re spending a lot of money to do a huge on-set build that we could easily extend in visual effects.

So a lot of our early work is talking to the production designers, art directors, lighting, and of course the cinematographer—Where are you going to put your camera? How wide is your lens going to be?—and using all that information to come up with the right-sized set we can build to maximize that spend. For each  shot, we figure out, “If you can give us this much set to this height, we can get 80 percent in camera, and we’ll just extend the set 20 percent.” We always try to get as much in camera as possible, not only because it looks great, but because then we can be spending our visual effects dollars on the things that are really tough to do on set. If something’s built and it’s physical and it’s real, that’s something we can photograph and scan and duplicate much easier than having to create it completely from scratch.

“We try to get as much in camera as possible... Then we can spend our visual effects dollars on the things that are really tough to do on set.”

Create: What about during shooting, what’s your role then?

White: During production, largely we’re answering questions and making sure things are shot correctly for us to be able to add the characters and effects in later. For every shot, we have to be on-set to get the measurements and lighting data of where all the objects are, to be able to recreate any camera movement, so that when we add our characters in later, they’re not sliding around but they’re tracked accurately to the floor.

We also help educate everybody about how the effects will appear and behave—creatively, what is this going to look like—and try to give the actors a good eye-line to work with. We’ll say, “The character’s only this tall, and that’s where he’s standing, so that’s where you should look.” A lot of it is developing a relationship with the crew and the director, because everybody needs to know if there’s a magical effect that’s going to go off, what color light should that emit, and at what time, and at what pace.

We also try to make sure we’re not shooting in a way that will make the effects unnecessarily expensive. So if you are adding a big vista, try not to have thin wispy smoke blowing in the foreground that’s going to be very difficult for us to match when we put the shot together later on.

The great thing these days is that we can use so much of the lighting that is done on set to light our characters. Often we talk to the DP about their lighting strategy, and we take high dynamic range photography on set and use that information when we light our characters, to make sure they feel integrated and like we’re utilizing those same lights.

termionator-sarahc-b-and-white

A great example of that is at the end of Terminator: Dark Fate: Dani stabs an ion spike into the REV-9, and it starts sputtering and flashing light. We worked with the lighting department, who was fantastic, and they put together these little strips of remote-controlled LEDs taped onto the stunt performer, who was very patient letting us attach lights to them. It just gave us that nice little bit of interactive light onto her arm, so that you believed that the imaginary ion spike and all of the sparks and sputtering was actually happening. It’s almost impossible for us to add all of that light in post-production. We have to collaborate very closely with all of the departments on set, in order for it to look seamless later.

“What I love about visual effects is that it’s this combination of incredible artists and complicated technology, but it’s not an industry that works with siloed artists. ”

Create: And then in post-production, you have so many departments and titles—camera tracking, 3D model sculptors, texture artists, digital painters, motion tracking, animators, lighting, simulation, creature development artists, compositing—can you paint us a picture of how all those various departments work together? And what is your role?

White: Personally, I spend a lot of the time with the artists. My job is to understand and communicate: What is the director looking for in the shot? How do the effects look, is the shot working? And then we improve and improve, like any creative process.

What I love about visual effects is that it’s this combination of incredible artists and complicated technology, but it’s not an industry that works with siloed artists. So many people have to come together and touch the work all the way through. It’s extremely collaborative.

Every day, there is a process of reviewing the work in the morning. One of the best traditions that continues on in the visual effects industry is that idea of dailies, where everybody gathers in the morning, they put the work up, and you get feedback. And then those are the notes that you go try and address that day.

The intention is very much like a studio review, where everybody’s got great ideas in terms of how to improve the work, and we all do a better job with that creative input from multiple people. For every visual effects supervisor, you deeply value the creative input of the team. No one has the answer to every problem, because it’s just such a broad set of problems that you’re trying to solve, so you rely on each of those experts to voice their opinions.

And certainly communication is just a huge part of that collaboration, especially between the teams. Because the final result is all dependent on the input from all these various people down the way, and you have to make sure that it’s all working well together. For people who are familiar with that process of creative review, it’s really valuable to know how to give and take constructive criticism, and to know that it’s all about improving the final product.

PHOENIX

Create: The workflow seems overwhelming. How do you manage the output of so many different teams?

White: The way the work flows through visual effects production, it’s quite a complicated machine. There’s a lot of interdependencies between the various departments. It’s like home construction in a way. There’s a department that pours the foundation, a department that sets the framing, there’s one that does the electrical and the plumbing. And into the mix you have creative feedback from the client—the director—that you’re constantly responding to or adjusting to.

We often start with a plate that has actors and a set that we’ll be working with. So the first step is to lay that out and do our camera tracking in our layout department. All of that data is then passed along to animation, and animation starts placing all the characters into the scene and animating them.

They get all the animation input from the modelers, who essentially create the character—and not just the static character, but they have a whole library of, say, facial animation, and the modelers are responsible for creating all of those facial shapes. Especially now that we’re doing a significant amount of not just hand animation, but actually putting helmet cams on the actors and capturing those performances, that process involves building an entire library of the actor’s face, of all the different poses that it can hit, so that when we go to record the footage, that’s all transposed onto the model. That could either be onto a digital version of that actor—like if we’re doing a stunt head replacement—or transposed onto a creature, in which case that actor’s performance is then made to work on sometimes a very different facial anatomy. But the most important thing through all of the animation is really capturing the performance that we’re looking for.

Create: In the opening sequence of Terminator: Dark Fate, you had to create young versions of Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger. How did you do that?

White: Recreating them was incredibly difficult. Human likenesses are one of the hardest things you can do with computer graphics, and especially these characters that are so well-known and well-loved from Terminator 2.

We tried to keep the process at first as scientific as possible, in terms of doing scans of real skin and measuring blood flow and looking at how pore sizes change as the face stretches and compresses, and then spending an incredible amount of time just studying reference images, studying over the actors’ faces, at that age and at that time, and making sure we could accurately recreate them.

We had a really fun moment where we showed a work in progress to Arnold and he said it looked pretty good from the nose up, but the mouth shape looked wrong, it was too puckered. It was interesting, because that mouth shape had been modeled from a reference we had of him, but in that particular camera angle, he was right, it didn’t look right.

It just shows you how tricky the human face is, because it is so lighting- and camera-dependent. We actually went and found another pose from one of the posters of Terminator 2, and modeled all the detail into the mouth shape that we saw in there, and that ended up being what was in the film. So it’s very challenging, even when you have a pretty good-looking static model, to be able to recreate the likeness of an actor, once the faces are moving.

Still of Grace the cyborg

Create: What's next after modeling and animation?

White: From there, it’s all about integration. So if they have clothing, we simulate the clothing, using physics-driven software. If they have hair, same thing. At ILM, those artists are called character technical directors. They do a broad range of things: they’ll rig the characters that come in from modelling, so that they’re set up for movement, and they’ll also do all of the clothing and skin simulation and hair, both on digital creatures and live action elements.

We had a scene in Terminator: Dark Fate where they’re underwater, and we actually did dry-for-wet plates of Arnold and Gabriel wrestling under water. We pinned down their real hair and then added CG hair that’s floating around appropriately for underwater dynamics to sell the effect. I really enjoyed that shot. Once we added the simulated shirts and the flowing hair onto the live-action faces, and then added the appropriate amount of diffusion and muck and dirt and all the different things that make it look like real water, it was amazing how well it worked.

All the various departments are contributing to that photo-realistic integration—from lighting and digital painting to compositing to effects simulation—which is our team that does fire and explosions or liquid or graphic design. You just keep iterating.

We do have a very strong art department. Every show has an art director who works within ILM. For every movie I’ve worked on, we’ve relied heavily on that person to help us. You can sit in dailies and look at shots and try to surmise what’s not working about them. But often times, I go to art director, and they’ll paint over the shot, maybe change the lighting or change the composition, or come up with some ideas for reference we can follow to help it look better. That injection of the art director into the process is really critical in order to get great-looking visual effects work—and also sometimes to help us interpret what the client is giving us as creative feedback.

As much as you might want to schedule it, and say the execution of a shot is a line from A to B, like any creative endeavor, it really isn’t. There’s a lot of exploration, and especially with the size of teams now, that exploration is expensive. There are certainly times when you get pretty far down a road and realize that you’ve got to start over. It’s really tough to have to make that call, but I’m always so impressed with the artists working on the shots, sometimes for months, who collectively get to a point where we realize, “You know what? The shot is just not working, we need to rip it down and start building it up again.”

So you’re certainly trying to make the creative process as efficient as possible, but also making sure that you get to a good place that everybody is happy with.

Create: What’s the most satisfying payoff for you?

White: When the director is happy. For us, this is a creative industry, and at the end of the day we’re trying to serve the film and the story in the best way we possibly can. When we can put together a shot and have the director respond in such a positive way, knowing they’re going from a vision that they’ve written in the script or maybe some art work, and now you’ve brought it to life for the film—when that works out, and they’re happy, it is really the best feeling for the entire creative team working on it.

© 2019 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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